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The board

The View, this time, is from behind.

When I knew for sure I was leaving my job I held for nearly thirty years, I started to focus not so much on what was next as much as how fast, how so very fast it all went, and I realized that about the same amount of time to come would put me at nearly ninety years old. Sigh.

I cleaned out my office—slowly at first, then with much more indifference. I carried piles of books to a common table in the building’s lobby, I moved file cabinets and other useless furniture into a storage area for someone else to claim and configure to their job the way we do with all things in our lives—we mold them to fit in the corners of our growth and accomplishments. Yeah, I was done with all of it.

And outside my office I took down all announcements and office hours and lists of readings from my bulletin board so that all that was left was black construction paper. It looked clean, like a slate, and I absolutely loved the metaphor of it all, but I also thought I should take a piece of chalk and write in some demanding font, “Outta here.”

Instead, I typed up a favorite saying of mine, “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated,” by Confucius. I stapled it to the middle of the board, smiled, and went about my business of unraveling three decades and finding my way to that diversion Frost wrote about with such eloquence.  

Next to my office was a classroom, and students often leaned against the wall (and my door) while waiting for another class to empty before entering. A few noticed the saying and commented to me when I returned to my office. “I like it,” one woman commented, “because it makes me think about it.” I liked that. I wish she had been one of my students.

The following week I added another quote to the board. This time Lao Tzu, one of my absolute favorites: “If you don’t change directions, you may end up where you are going.” Just stapling that to the board punctured a ball of emotion that spilled out across the rest of that day. How many times have I preached, I thought, about the dangers of getting caught in the currents and letting the world around us carry us through instead of pulling ourselves out of the stream and deciding for ourselves where we are going? Students had the same reaction, and I know they were wondering just who is it that decided going to college right then was the right thing to do. Often there is absolutely nothing wrong with where we are going; this is not a rebellious statement, I don’t think. I believe Lao was just indicating it can’t hurt to get a glimpse of what’s ahead every once in a while to see if you really are okay with the path you’re on.

Well, the board caught on and people started asking when the next quote was going up, gathering around my door on Tuesdays after they figured out I didn’t work Monday’s and that I must have posted them early Tuesday mornings, which I did. Up went James Taylor, Mae West, Seneca, St Augustine, and Jonathan Swift. More than a few passing people commented on how motivating the sayings were, and how they looked forward to them. Well, motivation was always my profession anyway, not teaching. For those thirty years it wasn’t English I was there for—hell, I was barely qualified for the first fifteen of those years. It was that I knew how to get them to find significance in it all—the work, the direction, the balance of dreams and reality, the math necessary to never forget life is a line segment, not a ray. My job in New England after college was to motivate people, and I learned it well. So when my car broke down and I ended up teaching college, I knew instinctively that it really doesn’t matter how much I know the work, if they aren’t engaged—if they don’t feel motivated—I’d be speaking to the walls. Plus, I think my board was an extension of what I knew was about to end, and I started in those last months to motivate myself.

William Penn. Herman Hesse. Helen Keller.

Thoreau.

Darwin.

Then it was the first week in May at the start of my last week ever on campus. And I found this: We must let go of the life we have planned so as to accept the one that is waiting for us—Joseph Campbell.

I typed it up, printed it out, moved Thoreau a bit for balance, and stapled Joseph to the board. That one was for me.

One of my most vivid memories from Spain was being in Santiago after more than a month of walking at about two or three miles an hour, sitting in cafes, crossing Roman bridges noting each step, each breath—essentially more than a month of barely moving to cross a nation—and then seemingly suddently we were boarding a train for the six-hour ride–just six hours–back to Pamplona. Six hours. It took four weeks to go from Pamplona to Santiago, and six hours to get back. On top of that disturbing reality check was that after a month of barely moving, we were suddenly barreling along at sixty and seventy miles per hour. It simply felt wrong. I leaned against a window looking at the landscape and when I saw pilgrims walking the opposite direction toward Santiago, holding their walking sticks, their backpacks strapped and the sun beating down as they walked and laughed, talking to other pilgrims on the road, I got a pit in the center of my stomach, a nauseous pain, like a child on a school bus for the first time who sees his parents outside walking the other way. I wanted to get off; I wanted to pull back the doors between the carriages, toss my pack out onto the trail and tumble out like a character in a movie. Writing that just now brought the pit back; it was that real, it is that real.

I’m a pilgrim, not a passenger.

Sometimes that happens. You’re riding along, caught up in the mainstream, barely noticing where you’re going because you’re engaged with everyone else in the stream barely noticing where they’re going, and you catch a glimpse of some shadow of yourself just out of reach. And you know that’s where you should be, of course, or at least you dream that’s where you should be, but the trouble, the pain, the expense, the sacrifice, the explanations necessary, the possibility of failure, the probability of doubt all slide in front of you, each holding you back just a little, all adding up to a gravitational force of “now” and “comfortable” and “responsible” that’s harder to break free from than the strongest of currents.

Well I’m here to tell you, when you do jump, it’s terrifying. The pit returns in a different fashion, this time pulsating, “Oh my God, what have I done?” You’ll never lose the pit, one way or the other.

But then you turn around and look back down the stream where you were headed, where everyone else is laughing and engaged and are all still heading, and finally, from this vantage, you see what you couldn’t from the stream, and you know, I mean you know it like I knew I should have been out on the Camino heading west instead of on the train heading east, that no matter where you go next you had been heading in the wrong direction.

Anyway.

I cleaned out my office, and I walked outside the door that last day and for a moment I thought about leaving the quotes there, or maybe replacing them all with just one quote in the middle of the black construction paper, saying, “and this bird you cannot change—Ronnie van Zant,” but I changed my mind and took them all down and gave them to my friend Jack. Each week he’d come by my office and we’d talk about the latest quote and what it meant to us. Then on that last day when I was about to throw out the last folder of teaching materials, I found another passage, typed it up and stapled it to the board.

I’d like to believe it is still there:

“If a man in the street were to pursue his self, what kind of guiding thoughts would he come up with about changing his existence? He would perhaps discover that his brain is not yet dead, that his body is not dried up, and that no matter where he is right now, he is still the creator of his own destiny. He can change this destiny by taking his one decision to change seriously, by fighting his petty resistance against change and fear, by learning more about his mind, by trying out behavior which fills his real need, by carrying out concrete acts rather than conceptualizing about them, by practicing to see and hear and touch and feel as he has never before used these senses…We must remind ourselves, however, that no change takes place without working hard and without getting your hands dirty. There are no formulae and no books to memorize on becoming. I only know this: I exist, I am, I am here, I am becoming, I am my life and no one else makes it for me. I must face my own shortcomings, mistakes, transgressions. No one can suffer my non-being as I do, but tomorrow is another day, and I must decide to leave my bed and live again. And if I fail, I don’t have the comfort of blaming you or life or God.”

                                                                                                                    –Joseph Zinker

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Watch Closely Now

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Some years ago I read for a group of senior citizens at a retirement community on the bay in Virginia Beach. I’ve done this at the same place a few times. But that last time was memorable for the activity at dinner before the reading.  My host, Bill, and I were eating dinner in the facility restaurant when halfway through the meal a woman at the next table fell out of her chair and died. Or she died and fell out of her chair. Either way, she was dead on the floor just a few feet away, and Bill said, “Oh I hate when everyone stares when this happens! Why can’t they just do what they are doing?!”

Well, to be honest, my first problem was that I was one of the ones who looked perhaps longer than I should. When she first fell, I jumped up, but Bill said to sit, that the medics on staff would be there in seconds, and he was right. They came out of the kitchen faster than a cook answering a complaint. She was a small woman, at least ninety, and her demise seemed more of a prank fall then a heart attack or choking incident. It was almost as if she were already dead, but a few seconds earlier she had been talking to her friend, who I might add, was polite enough not to stare. The friend sat with her hands folded until the paramedics escorted her to a different table. Which leads me to my second problem: It felt very much as if upon moving in everyone had been told: “If you are eating with anyone, and they die, do not help, do not get up. Wait for someone to move you to the next available table.” Even the way Bill immediately protested, “I hate when everyone stares,” implied this happens often, and people usually, rudely of course, gawk at the corpse. Perhaps the exertion necessary to attend dinner or a function pushes some over the mortal edge. I don’t know, but the way the medics immediately arrived with screens to surround the poor woman, and the way everyone else returned to their meals in unison made me believe I did not happen upon an unusual evening at ye ‘ol facility. I had the salmon and Bill had the prime rib. I sipped my wine. Pinot Noir.

After the reading (which continued without comments concerning the corpse and was well attended by quite jovial people) I thought about Bill’s expectation that no one should stare. There was a corpse closer to me than the basket of bread on my table; I stole a glance. I looked longer than I should, and while I’m sure there is some relevant etiquette, I am equally sure no one in the room was looking at me anyway.

When I was a child, probably about eight or nine, my mother taught me two things: look at people when they talk to you, and don’t stare. These are two seemingly contradictory life lessons for a kid; this is a fine line to walk, especially at nine years old. Mom brought me to the library on Long Island to check out books. We stood in the stacks and I asked the librarian a question, and while she answered I looked at the books instead of her. My mother quickly corrected me: “Look at someone when she talks to you, Robert. Look in her eyes when she talks.” I did and obviously I never forgot that lesson. But later that day when I watched a neighbor struggle her way out of her chair, my mother told me not to stare. I was confused. Look but don’t stare. I knew immediately I needed to work on my timing for the proper etiquette. When someone is done talking, a quick glance away to disengage eye contact is necessary, unless you’re hitting on someone and the chemistry is strong, then holding the stare a bit longer allows the other person to know you were staring, blatantly staring, because you couldn’t look away from her beautiful eyes. The problem there, of course, is if you stare too long you are in danger of crossing that line to psychopath. If she does look away you have to figure out if she looked away because she is completely uninterested or because she is afraid of revealing her deep rooted passion to plow over the table at you. Hard call.

Now imagine one of you is dead. The rules change.

It seems staring isn’t the issue as much as being misunderstood. It is an art form. One thing I always admired about my father was his absolute eye contact when he talked to someone. He was not an intimidating man in the least, yet he somehow commanded respect, and I believe it was because of his eyes which so clearly let people know they could trust him. He looked right at you when he talked or when you talked. And he knew when to let it go. He was the master of the look-stare genre. I picked up on some of his ways, but my profession has altered my opinion about the timing of it all.

As a college professor people stare at me all the time, and when I am talking or about to talk, it truly doesn’t bother me. But often, especially on the first day of class before the lecture starts, they just sit there and stare at me. I suppose they’re sizing me up: do I look mean, aggravated, am I an easy A or a piping bastard? But as I watched the years roll past and students have come and gone, they don’t stare as much. Part of it is because they’re looking at their phones; part of it is because the latest vacuous zombie-obsessed generation doesn’t make eye contact at all, I mean, you know, like, ever?

Some people look, some stare, some have a gander, some a look-see, people peak, they glimpse, behold, gaze, and leer; they survey, observe, give the once-over, and keep watch.

Look, I am not so self-conscious that I care what people think when they scrutinize. I just prefer they get their timing down. Personally, I don’t ever want to stop staring. There is too much to see, too many faces to commit to memory. I’m glad I stared a long time at my father’s face, my grandmother’s eyes. I can recall them now upon demand. I can still see a friend’s brown eyes one spring day nearing some gardens where we worked. I can still see another friend’s blue eyes, I mean blue, over chocolate cake. The old axiom is that a person’s eyes are windows to their soul, but I think they’re transoms to my own life, my own fears and loves and longings.

“Look at people,” my mother said. Absolutely. Like the time a college friend, Lori Baum, and I were at the mall when we saw an old professor from the classics department, where she worked. His wife stopped him and straightened his tie, and when she was done, she pat his chest, and his eyes opened wide and he smiled so that I remember it now, forty years on. Lori grabbed my arm and said, “Did you see his eyes?!?” I did. I still do.

The time two friends from high school whom I hadn’t seen in thirty five years showed up at a reading, and when I looked out across my pages and saw their eyes, I felt seventeen, instantly.

I sit in the room before class and not only is no one making eye contact, they’re not even talking. Everyone—I mean everyone—spends those pre-lecture moments on their phones, and I wonder who is sitting next to someone that might change their life, change their plans for the weekend. It just might be the easiest thing we can do to bring peace wherever we go—to look into someone’s eyes.

Hang on: This is science here:

When you look someone directly in the eyes, their body produces a chemical called phenylethylamine. This wonder drug we can generate with a blink acts as a central nervous system stimulant, it stimulates the mind enough to encourage us to try new things and is a wonder-element at lifting us out of depression.

It does not, however, raise the dead, no matter how long you stare.

I wish, oh, I wish I had made more eye contact, held the stare a bit longer, let go a little sooner, maybe understood better that, as Einstein said, he who can no longer pause in wonder and stand rapt in awe is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.

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Hello/Goodbye

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The Wilderness today is Civility

Brad and Jennifer talked to each other. They each smiled when the other did well at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and they spent a few minutes laughing, touching each other’s hands as they did so. Then they went their separate ways.

And America is enamored. It doesn’t take much, does it?

The Today Show, CNN, and other supposedly respectable outlets spent a fair amount of airtime dedicated to supposing, whatifing, maybeing, and the hosts of these morning shows all gushed. Several viewers tweeted or commented live that this is historic, one declaring her grandchildren will be talking about this moment. I thought she was being sarcastic, but she was crying.

Oh, hell, I don’t need to elaborate—you’ve all undoubtedly seen what I’m talking about. I’m not a fan of either; that is, I like them, I’ve seen a few Friends episodes and it is good, she is good, and I still believe one of Pitt’s best performances is his work in A River Runs Through It. That deserved a nomination. Other than that, I couldn’t really care less.

But…(of course, but…)

Something essential and disturbing lies in this national attention toward two exes who are now good friends laughing together and congratulating each other at a very special occasion: it doesn’t happen anymore. I can’t remember the last time I witnessed reconciliation, mutual respect despite differences, two parties who moved beyond their troubles and managed to treat each other, eventually, humanely and with love. Ellen and W? Maybe, but look at the intense criticism she took for getting along with the former president because people thought she shouldn’t be friends with him. djt and Kim Jong Un? Perhaps, but that doesn’t really count because neither was, in fact, getting along with the other in earnest but solely for self-fulfilling purposes.

People being nice to each other when we are used to them fighting has become news. That’s the state of humanity; that’s the condition of what was once a strong and dependable morality. No longer do people step up to the plate and send a positive, forgiving or confessional stand; not unless they believe something positive will be reciprocated. The old Japanese saying, “Just because the message is not received doesn’t mean it is not worth sending,” is no longer acknowledged. The Golden Rule is dead. Am I exaggerating? I hope so, but based upon the news, the flood of matter growing out of the Big Bang of media frenzy, the new standard is negative comments and disparaging tweets. So much so that two people who had once loved each other, then despised each other, who now get along really well, makes headlines. The attention thrown on Megan and Harry is different: He’s stepping away from his birthplace, his position as grandson of the longest reigning monarch ever, the great-great whatever grandson of Queen Victoria, descendant of world history in persona. His cordiality matters a bit in British relations. But Brad? He’s just a guy who is friendly to his ex, and look now, one fan commented, “I don’t know what this means? What will happen to their partners now?”

It seems one of the symptoms here is that way too many people have no life and think how others interact somehow vicariously excuses our own behavior, so when they act cordially, well, that might simply be too much pressure. We hold grudges far too long; we don’t stop and earnestly offer congratulations to those we otherwise may no longer support; we don’t call old friends who’ve fallen away and apologize for being out of touch, no matter whose fault it is. This current of pessimism and the wireless negativity which permeates the atmosphere has compromised human decency, made it impossible to separate those ideas with which we disagree from the rest of someone’s possibly good-natured soul.

I didn’t mean to lose touch with a very old friend of mine and I really need to call him. We are polar opposites politically, and I’m sure if I even cross his mind, he might believe it’s his fault we’ve lost touch, but that simply isn’t true. It’s just that neither of us have picked up the phone to say hello. It isn’t expected anymore. Life doesn’t bend that way anymore.  

I tried this recently. About a year ago I contacted someone I knew from my last full-time job, and we had a great time catching up, he said we have got to do this more often and that he’d call, and I never heard from him again. Maybe it is my fault, I could have reached out—again—maybe he just isn’t the type to take the initiative though he really is glad to get together. I don’t know—I never heard from him. But we are all guilty of that, all of us, to some degree. It isn’t unusual for us to say at some point, “Geez, I’ve called the last three times; clearly he’s not interested in being in touch.” Well, in fact I did try again about two months ago and received a positive, hopeful reply and a promise to make plans. Then—nothing. Maybe he is simply too polite to tell me to feck off and he’s thinking, “The man can’t take a hint!” Maybe that’s my problem: people spend far too much time “hinting.”

But I’ll try again soon. Who wants to be the one known for remaining pissed off, the one who holds the grudge? Who wants to be the one that didn’t apologize or accept someone’s apology? Wouldn’t it be just fine if we could all know we can go to our graves as being the ones who tried?

I hope the news media does not win out. I hope they don’t reiterate to whatever the next generation is called that two people who didn’t get along once should remain that way or remain together forever; apparently only one or the other sells on television and some sort of middle ground is completely unacceptable; maybe we are too used to binary, obvious, and easy to determine relationships. “We love him!” or “We hate him!” has become the cattle call of the masses, politically and socially. What a shame since such middle-ground relations is how we acknowledge forgiveness and maturity. Brad and Jennifer should not be news simply because that interaction should be standard, expected. It caught this nation’s attention because we are in the age of extremes.

Well, I can only do my small part. So I have a new plan: Every time something is negative on television, every time someone disses someone for thinking differently than they do, I’m going to contact someone I’ve not heard from or seen in a while to offer a quick hello, a brief “I was thinking of you.” Judging by the rate of negative news and absurdly poor behavior and personal attacks from so many leaders these days, I should be in touch with everyone I’ve ever known in no time at all.

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art·ist /ˈärdəst/ noun • a person who practices any of the various creative arts, such as a sculptor, novelist, poet, or filmmaker. • a person skilled at a particular task or occupation.

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Artists engage in a daily battle between the belief their work is worthy—that it can stand the scrutiny of those who know better and it will be well received by critics and customers alike and is ready for publication or presentation; and the conviction that it is a complete waste of time—that it is predictable or trite or tiresome, will sit on shelves or in bins without so much as a glance, and a dozen better ways to approach the topic will become apparent while the brutal reality that no other creative work will ever emerge remains crystal clear.

Artists, writers, work for free, hoping, praying, someone, anyone, will order the book just out of support, just out of curiosity. There is no health care, there is no retirement plan, there is no guarantee the time invested wasn’t simply folly. There is no yard stick to measure how well it is going, how much longer it will take, which parts need attention, and which deserve to be deleted. Often, artists stare at the medium for hours, fiddling around, snacking, cleaning, engaging in any form of distraction and avoidance. On a good day, a writer may have a good page, sometimes three or four, and every once in a while, lightning strikes, but an artist lives with the strong possibility of waking up the next morning and chucking the whole project. Artists have panic attacks, breakdowns, and bad habits. They drink. They swear. It is the creative version of coping, of loosening the tie, but the work is never finished, unless one buys into Rembrandt’s insistence that a work is finished when an artist realizes the intentions.

Few occupations demand the tenets of faith like that of an artist. If they agree with Kahlo and paint their own reality, then artists demonstrate daily the belief in things unseen, constantly starting from scratch, always inventing, and always—by definition—always searching for originality in a world flooded with ideas and blogs and podcasts and books, and still the artist works in one of the original exercises of pure faith, well knowing that Gauguin was right, that art is either revolution or plagiarism.

An artist wants to scream “buy my book,” “purchase this painting,” “please listen to my music.” An artist wants to balance the need to promote her work with not wanting to come across as egocentric when in fact the very act of creating something from nothing under the conviction others will want to make it part of their lives is a level of egoism few professions demand. An artist deals with these tugs of war between humility and pride. The tug of war, as Merton writes, of finding oneself and losing oneself at the same time.

An artist keeps working because it is a race against time to not “die with the music in you” as Wayne Dwyer noted, with stories on the cusp of creation, with unfinished work, with incomplete manuscripts, because two things are absolute: one lifetime cannot accommodate the ideas and works and starts and restarts of an artist, and they will die sooner rather than later and it is coming on fast, no matter how long they will actually live, because perception is different for an artist, hence the need as James Baldwin insists, to vomit up the anguish.

An artist cries because so much time is wasted. An artist cries because it is impossible, it is just impossible to capture the turmoil in humanity, but the artist tries to abide by Pollock and paint “what he is” by sketching another river, writing another digression, composing another score where an oboe comes in high and slow in some minor-key attempt to capture the sadness which, anyway, a true artist well knows she will never aptly express, because all artists know that Rodin was right—the main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live.

If one does not have a bestseller, a gallery, an audience, people consider the art a fleeting phase, never completely understanding the difference between art and commodity. An artist wants sales, of course, but only for the purpose of having the time to produce more art. An artist is disturbed by negative reviews and criticism, of course, but works anyway.  If a benefactor bestows funds for an artist to keep working without the stress of financial burdens so common in the creative world, that artist will produce. But for certain if no such benefactor exists, the artist works anyway, finds the freedom necessary anyway, producing the same work anyway, because the artist knows what Monet knew, that the richness comes from nature—the true source of inspiration. The world is graced with art because some people must create as certain as they must exhale, as certain as Chagall’s belief that the artist simply picks up where nature left off.

Artists are not amateurs, they are not hobbyists. An artist will spend hours figuring out the necessity of one word, an artist will step back after two months work and scrape off the paint of an oak to move it one inch for a better composition, an artist cannot eliminate a note or a phrase. An artist wants to leave a mark, believes, as did Trotsky, that art is not a mirror to hold up to society but a hammer with which to shape it.

Artists are shooting for something else, and in the end the art is merely a symptom of their desire to express the inexplicable. Because in the soul of an artist is the deep understanding and resignation that, as van Gogh insisted, the true artist works not with brushes and canvas but with flesh and blood, believing first in humanity.

An artist is never quite certain of her mental stability but has complete faith that how she behaves is perfectly normal. Virginia Woolf, Eugene O’Neil, Beethoven, Keats, Tennessee Williams, Vincent van Gogh, Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Michelangelo, Charles Dickens all lived with mental illnesses and any artist worth his salt will insist if any element of these great souls had been more regulated, more controlled, we would never have heard of them.

Georgia O’Keefe was right: Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing.  Making your unknown known is the important thing, that is success. Something is that was not but for an acute thought, some simmering neurosis only settled by the act of creation. Hence poetry, literature, paintings, symphonies, and all.

An artist can quench the stress and anxiety of bill collectors and illnesses, of hunger and sleeplessness, by producing two or three decent pages, by catching the color of what will forever be last night’s sunset. An artist makes beauty permanent, makes our deepest emotional reactions permissible.

We walk that tight rope spanning obscurity, balanced only by a pole of phrases and transitions, of oil and acrylics, minor keys and crescendos. Walt Whitman had his Leaves of Grass, but an artist has a blank sheet of paper. This leaves the advantage with the artist. Everyone knows the work Whitman wrote and how it still grows in the literary field, but an artist has the uncriticable blank sheet of paper, and with the right choice of words, he may harvest his own Grass. To be an artist, Henry Moore said, is to believe in life, and life is mystery, and mystery is the flint which ignites creativity, without which, as Rene Magritte points out, the world would not exist.

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Now and Next

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“We talked of the tiny difference between ending and starting to begin”

                                                                   –Harry Chapin

Richard Simmons sat in my office with me and Betty, a woman who needed to lose more than a hundred pounds and was eating up to ten Snickers Bars a day. I’ve told this story before, but one detail I left out. At some point no matter what Richard said, Betty kept returning to all she had done wrong; the candy, the diet soda, the fatty foods for dinner, the stagnancy, salt, the same response so many members of the club relied upon to make them feel like they’re appropriately self-analyzing their situation.

When she was quiet a moment, Richard shook his head and said as only he can say, “Betty Betty Betty. You’re thinking is backwards. It isn’t difficult to know how you got in this position; I know, I’ve been there myself. But the more you focus on what you’re doing wrong or what you did wrong to bring you to this point, thinking you will find an answer there, the longer you will spiral into depression.”

I remember Betty looking at the Snickers Bar on my desk. I remember seeing the absolute compassion in Richard’s eyes. I had just taught an hour-long advanced class and was exhausted. I remember listening with as much intensity as Betty listened. I’d been analyzing what members ate to figure out what they should do differently in the future, and I sensed Richard was about to bring this in a new direction.

“Focus only on solutions. Focus on now and next; that’s all: Now and Next.” He talked about which good foods to have that day, where to park her car, what to do that night when she normally would have a bowl of something ugly, what to do when she normally would watch television, snacking without thinking.

Stop analyzing and thinking about the old Betty, he told her. That was then. That was yesterday. Stop listening to what anybody else says that isn’t healthy for you.

Then this: Don’t wake up a month from now knowing what you could have done differently but didn’t bother doing because it was hard or unfamiliar. Don’t wake up tomorrow regretting what you did today when you know better. I sat up when Richard looked at me for some interjection. He was excellent at knowing when to back off. So I said, “Betty, focus on the next positive solution instead of the last negative cause.”

Richard’s eyes opened a bit and he repeated to Betty, “Focus on the next positive solution instead of the last negative cause.”

I miss Richard. When I think of him, I think of Don McLean’s line about Van Gogh: “This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.” People made fun of him, they ridiculed his outrageous demeanor and attitude. Even his friends like David Letterman would make fun of him for the benefit of their own routines. And how Richard handled it was an example so often overlooked. He laughed along with everyone, no matter how it might have hurt inside, and he kept true to what he believed in. I loved that. I loved the very notion that no matter what anybody else says, they are not on your path, they are not seeing things the way you do, they do not have your anticipation or depression or hope or hopelessness.

It isn’t difficult to understand how some of us end up where we are. For some it is depression which can lead to a downward spiral of bad choices. But for some it is an unexpected fall which others might wrongly judge. And we get caught up in their judgments, trying to show them what really happened to bring us here instead of ignoring their thoughts and focusing on now and next. And what we all have in common is the next step will be individual and unique.

We wish too often for angels, for miracles, for some unexpected assistance to help us through the unfortunate circumstances in which we find ourselves. But how we lose the weight is by what step we take next, usually alone but with as much confidence and faith as we can summon.

It is warm today, sunny, warm like July and I’m wearing shorts and flip flops, though by the end of the week it is supposed to be winter again. The geese are confused, I saw some insects on the lawn, and I’m praying the laurel doesn’t start to bud. It’s happened before. Tomorrow I start teaching again two writing courses at Old Dominion and two art courses at Saint Leo’s. Again. So much follows me, even here in nature where I’m looking out across a still and beautiful river, but my mind is preoccupied. I’m still learning to focus on the next step, even when I have no idea what that next step should be. I’m still learning to stop waiting for miracles and stop analyzing the last negative cause.

The past is in its grave.

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A Guide to Teaching Art History to Active-Duty Military During a Time of War

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For starters, if someone’s phone vibrates and he reads the message, pay no mind. When someone is late and quietly tries to slide to the back and pick up on the discussion, it’s not a big deal. If she asks for something to be repeated that you went over before her arrival, nod and ask another student to answer the question; the repetition is good for everyone anyway. Don’t ask where they were or why they’re late. Just let it go. If several evenings pass and someone hasn’t shown up, send an email or call; they might have needed a day or two, just a little time away. If they don’t answer, if they don’t return the call, let it go. If they don’t return at all, give them an incomplete and wait. It’s not going to be a problem to wait. When they do return, don’t ask where they were or why they didn’t call. They are well-trained US Military; they are Navy personnel, Chief Petty Officers, Seal Team Six. They’re not negligent. Honest to God, they’re not indifferent. 

When calling roll ask where they’re from. They’re from all over the country, and more than a few friendships can ignite in a small class of people who discover they come from just a few towns away from each other half a world away from here. Let them talk about it; laugh as they laugh about common experiences. It will pay off later both here and abroad.

Let them know this is the most important class they will take. After they’re done laughing, tell them that while it may seem benign, that nothing they’ve trained for will help them here and nothing you’re going to do will ever be used on their job, art preceded us all, preceded war, preceded the invention of gunpowder and even politics. Show them the cave art from France. Play them the ancient South African chant still used today to warn villagers of nearby dangers. Show them the painting Rembrandt made of the crucifixion several dozen wars ago. Tell them that the most beautiful artifacts on the planet can be found between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers in ancient Mesopotamia. They’ll already know you’re talking about present day Baghdad. They’ve been there. Show them some of the Iraqi artwork; they can talk about it with you. You won’t have to remind them that literature, visual arts, architecture, music, is what we live for. Instead, play them Pachelbel’s Canon in D, or Bach’s Cello Suite Number One in G Major played by Yo Yo Ma. They’ll get it. 

Do not play protest songs. Do not show anti-war slogans. They already agree with those sentiments, of course. They’re not political. Not one of them is interested in war. None of them desires to shoot anyone, hurt anyone, confront anyone. And when you talk about propaganda art, let them comment and stay silent. You have no need to say much here. They’ll carry pretty much every conversation anyway. Remind yourself you are teaching some of the most disciplined, respectful, hard-working, dedicated, and motivated individuals any professor can possibly hope for. Point them toward the art; they’ll tell you why it is beautiful and significant and can be the salvation of humanity, and always has been. They’ll see the cherubs’ fingers touch and they’ll cry. They’ll hear Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony and sit quietly long after class ends, thinking. Remembering. Let them be.

If you are teaching at sunset and somewhere on base a trumpet starts playing “Colors” as the flag descends, stop teaching. Let it play out. They’ll explain if you ask. When someone needs to keep stepping out, don’t skip a beat. If someone stands up in the back of the room and wanders around or stares out the window for a long time after the trumpet stops, let it go.

When someone says they’ve been notified they’re being deployed, do not apologize; do not say “stay safe.” Do not pretend they’ll be fine. Even if they make it back there’s a high chance they won’t be fine and a significantly higher chance they’ll return with a strong desire to kill themselves. Simply thank them for their service and tell them you look forward to seeing them when they return. When they do they will come to see you; they always do. For God’s sake, remember their name. Give them your cell phone number and tell them it would be great to get coffee together and catch up. Let them know they really can call. They won’t but give them your number anyway.

If someone’s spouse emails to tell you your student will not be coming back to class anymore, thank them politely and apologize for their loss–you will have already received a letter from the administration. Do not reply with what a fine student your student was—that’s predictable and uninteresting. Instead, repeat the student’s name and say you will inform everyone else.

And have that discussion about beauty—ask them if they think beauty is in the eye of the beholder or if it can be an objective essence. They’ll all insist that it is in the eye of the beholder. Then put the cheapest, ugliest statue of Madonna or Christ or whatever deity you choose on the desk. Ask them what is beautiful about it. When you’ve separated the ones who find the gaudy plastic ugly from the ones who find the symbol of Mary or Christ beautiful for what it represents, show them that defining “beautiful” is not so easy; show them that what one person finds beautiful may have absolutely nothing to do with the medium. They’ll be no need to extend the metaphor or talk about other cultures, other religions, other perspectives—these people have been around the block; they’ll get it.

Then show them pictures of some of the world’s greatest buildings and ask them their favorite architecture. They’ve been to Dubai, Baghdad, Karachi, and Istanbul. They’ve been to Syria, the mountains of Afghanistan, the border of Pakistan. They’ll talk about structures you’ve never heard of; they’ll be enthusiastic and want to share it with you and recall it with colleagues. Then you’ll see how very much they already appreciate beauty and human accomplishment; you’ll quickly come to see that they very much understand what humans are capable of.

Better than anyone, they are acutely aware of what humans are capable of.

 

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Iraqi Artist Abbas Muhi al Deen

Rain on the Skylight

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It’s the first week of January at something like 3 am. I was thinking about a friend of mine I last heard from thirty-eight years ago today. We lost touch because of bad travel plans. I shouldn’t have given up so soon. I should have been more combative, more pessimistic. What an optimistic ass I was back then. That’s not always a good thing.

But it got me thinking here in the witching hours of night, of those times and what I did and what I failed to do. Such as, I should have kept playing tennis.

I should have kept playing guitar.

I should have stayed in Massachusetts.

I should have headed to USC for that Film School thing after college.

I should have taken that job tending bar in the Austrian castle.

I hate three am.

Anyone ever do this? Not seriously, not in a regretful way really, but those witching-hour moments of, what is it? Not self-doubt, really. More of a review; an analysis of “me so far.” The moments don’t linger; I don’t stop on the Massachusetts one and get frustrated at all that might have happened if I stayed or what could have been avoided, no. It’s just a “wow, of all the places I’ve lived I wish I had stayed there.” Really, no big deal. This isn’t a “My Regrets” blog by any means. It is an exercise in nature where the view is hindsight and the wilderness is disparity. As for Massachusetts, I quickly recall trying to drive Route 140 up the mountain in winter, and the moment passes, and I realize I should have moved to Florida.

Instead of Penn State I should have gone to NYU. I was accepted at both, but I didn’t think I could afford New York. As it turns out I couldn’t afford Pennsylvania either so I should have not afforded New York instead. While there, I should have joined my old friend Sean who is an actor in NY and gone to some casting calls. I always wanted to play the dead body at the beginning of “Law and Order.” Or I could have taken advantage of the NY City nightclub scene and done stand up. But I’m seriously certain I wasn’t funny enough. Not yet. Age provides humor.

See, this reflection isn’t serious. Not really. But it’s late, and I’m tired, so I think sometimes about the downside, the shadowy side of it all, like how I should have answered the phone that morning in ’92 when I sat staring at the desk in my office thinking how I should have stayed in bed, that I didn’t want to talk to anyone. Not yet. And how a few days later I should have apologized to his father at the funeral when all I told him was that I should have called more often.

Time passes and I should have gone to Monterey anyway. I should have tried harder or given up completely. They’re so closely related, quitting and devotion. I should have learned the difference. Maybe I already knew I shouldn’t go and that thirty years later it would all make sense. Or maybe I simply couldn’t afford it, financially or emotionally. I should have learned to invest in both. I did some math: If I had saved one dollar a day from the time I was born I’d have roughly $22 thousand dollars right now. That’s a new Civic. I could have had a new Civic. I should have done that.

I am going to be sixty and I’ve been really tired, just really tired. It’s not depression, really, and my doctor says it is not chemical, it’s situational. I should have found a different doctor. Or maybe I should have found a therapist. Like that one who always finishes my sentences, who I can be around and be quiet a long time without being asked, “So what’s wrong you’ve been quiet?” But I don’t think she’s licensed. I should have majored in philosophy. Or psychology. Or journalism. Well, okay, but I should have actually pursued a career in my major instead of, you know, not.

I didn’t know I was wrong, or right, or on the wrong or right path. I didn’t have that kind of sense of things back then. Or now I suppose. I didn’t know a good coach would have made all the difference. No one ever said, “You really need some better coaches; you can make this happen.” I grew up in a time when as long as you weren’t in trouble nothing needed to be talked about. This was not the age of trophies for everyone and helicopter parents. Life was fine so long as I wasn’t in trouble. But that’s the thing; I was always hanging out at the beach, walking instead of being on the court, being on the ball, being in the books, being aware of what was next, aware of what to do. And when you’re just not sure what to do, you do nothing. It’s that simple.

I shouldn’t have done nothing.

I should never have quit piano lessons. Four days was simply not long enough.

I should have stayed in Spain.

***

Less than two years ago I left a job I held for three decades.

Truth be told, I now know what I should have done differently: I should have left sooner. I should have abandoned a job I had no business doing to begin with and pursed something creative years earlier. I got hooked by the security and respectability and money, but I was never really qualified to teach what I taught. On paper, sure, but life is not paper, life is not degrees, life is not always expectations and responsibilities and duty. Those things are important, yes, of course, and before my note section here fills up with how wrong I am I should point out I do have three college degrees, I was responsible enough to hold down an incredibly respectable job for thirty years, and I always showed up. Always.

But that is not life. That is not passion. That is not what sets the soul on fire and ignites that internal motivation. I spent a few days with a pretty popular recording artist once when I was a senior at college. We sat one afternoon playing guitars and he asked what my major was, and he asked why the hell I wasn’t involved more in music. “You should finish school and then forget it and get into this. You really should,” he said.

I shouldn’t have spent any time with him. That just fucked with my head.

Explain this: I had that one job since the end of the Reagan administration to the second year of the current chaos in DC—I taught English, college comp, etc., but I had NO English training AT ALL—honest, none. My degrees at the time were in journalism, and then humanities and art, not English. On top of that, I had never taught a class in my life except for Richard Simmons, and that wasn’t college, it was loud music and fifty people sweating their asses off, literally. On paper, fine, they said. But I walked into the classroom that first time and for quite some years after and basically taught senior-level journalism.  Sure, eventually I received a terminal degree, this time in English, creative writing, etc, so I did work until I knew what I was doing. But it was such a relief when I left; I felt like no matter how hard things can get without that security, I just stepped out of something vague and unhealthy and into the reality of life where you can feel your pulse, you can feel your desire like something stirring in your stomach. On top of that I spent thirty years there and I haven’t heard from one person since I left. I was never so isolated as when I was there. Yes, by God, I should have left sooner.

But then, Spain. So listen: after you fall to sleep and have gone through your “I shouldn’t have’s” and your “I should have’s,” do you recall the one moment that you know you can land on if you’re falling? That one time or person or place in your life that retains such clarity and focus, that you can go there—physically or mentally—and you know you will step back into purpose and direction again?

For me, Spain.

No, this isn’t about going back to Spain, though I will, or walking the Camino again, though I will. It is about remembering that this pilgrimage we’re on is laced with “I should have stopped earlier, I should have kept going, I should have turned there and left sooner and on and on and on.” Oh to complete that pilgrimage taught me about this grander journey, and I wish I had done it when I was my son’s age when he did it; they don’t teach pilgrimage in school. They don’t teach so many things about life, like how to recognize you’re still too young to recognize what is permanent and what is fleeting. They don’t teach you when to forget about who’s missing and when to head out and see for yourself; they don’t teach you when to answer the phone, when to change courses, not to read Frost, to read more Rumi. They don’t teach you so much. I shouldn’t have expected to simply know everything I needed to know. They don’t teach you just how ignorant you are; they tell you how smart you are, and then they send you out to discover on your own your shortcomings. That’s fair, I suppose, but they could have at least warned us, right? They could have an exam in some civics course entitled, “Someday at three am you’re going to wake up and wonder about all the things you shouldn’t have done. Have a blue book and a number two pencil ready.”

I don’t think people think about this. Or maybe they do and I’m just catching on, late as usual. Well, we all should believe in ourselves earlier.

Anyway, what I was about to write before Truth interrupted with all her matter of factness about Robert Frost and wrong paths and three am, there are so many things not that I wish I had done but that I wish I hadn’t. But really, at the end of the end, I will be more regretful of what I wanted to do and didn’t try than what I did do and failed.

I really wish I could talk to my dad right now. Have a Scotch. He was an example of such unparalleled strength. He didn’t offer advice, not really. Maybe my siblings remember him doing so, but I don’t. But, man, he was an amazing example of what a person should be in the best of circumstances. I miss his strong, quiet presence. I should have been more like him.

 

Something has got to change. And apparently it isn’t going to be anyone else, or the world, or the menu at Panera, so it is going to have to be me. Maybe intelligence isn’t simply knowing when to show up but knowing when to leave. Sometimes we learn late, but, well, we do learn.

I shouldn’t have had so many Cheez-Its before bed. I should have stopped at one coconut rum and orange juice.

I should get back in bed and try and sleep. And when someone says, “Well, you’re doing the best you can,” I should stop them and say, “How do you know?” Honest to God, stop telling people that. How do you know??

No. I’m not. And it is usually only at this hour of the night that I am blatantly aware of that fact; that I absolutely am not doing the best that I can. Are you? Does anyone? How do we know? Think about it, how do we measure what we are capable of? To each other? No, of course not. To past performance? I hope not. Then how? Instinct? Faith?

Damn. Now I’m awake again.

I should have gone to bed two paragraphs ago. I should go downstairs and get some Oreos. I shouldn’t have…

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